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Penguins vs. Lightning Eastern Final preview

Pittsburgh's forward depth, Tampa Bay's stellar defense could be keys to series

by Dan Rosen and Corey Long / NHL.com

The Pittsburgh Penguins reached the Eastern Conference Final by defeating the top-seeded Washington Capitals in six games in the second round. It was Pittsburgh's eighth Stanley Cup Playoff series win against their Metropolitan Division rival in nine tries.

The Tampa Bay Lightning, who eliminated the New York Islanders in five games in the second round, are not as familiar to the Penguins. The teams have played each other once in the postseason, in 2011, when Tampa Bay defeated Pittsburgh in seven games in a first-round series.

The Lightning won all three games this season against the Penguins, but they haven't faced each other since Feb. 20.

There will be plenty of intrigue as the Penguins, who haven't played in the Stanley Cup Final since 2009, look to get past the 2015 Eastern Conference champions. Tampa Bay forward Steven Stamkos, who has not played in the postseason because of a blood clot, could return in this round, potentially adding another big name to a series that already has Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop.

FORWARDS

Penguins: Pittsburgh won its second-round series against Washington despite getting one goal between Crosby and Malkin. Crosby had two assists in the series, and Malkin had a goal and an assist but was shut out in the final four games.

The Penguins prevailed because of their forward depth, something they have sorely lacked in the recent past. Pittsburgh can roll four lines and get production from them all.

The third line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel combined for 18 points (seven goals, 11 assists) against Washington. Each scored (Kessel had two goals) in the Penguins' 4-3 overtime victory in Game 6. Bonino scored the winner off assists from Kessel and Hagelin. Fourth-line center Matt Cullen scored a big goal for the Penguins in Game 4, and Cullen's linemate, Tom Kuhnhackl, scored in Game 3.

Eric Fehr, who has been playing on the second line with Malkin and Chris Kunitz, scored the winning goal in Game 2. Patric Hornqvist, on the top line with Crosby and Conor Sheary, scored two goals, including in overtime in Game 4.

Lightning: Tampa Bay got secondary scoring in the second round against New York after relying heavily on the top line of Alex Killorn, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov in the first round against the Detroit Red Wings. Coach Jon Cooper moved Ondrej Palat up at times to play with Johnson and Kucherov, reuniting "The Triplets," and had Killorn on a line with Jonathan Drouin and Valtteri Filppula.  

The move didn't hurt Kucherov, who scored four goals in the series, and it helped the other lines get involved. Drouin scored the first NHL playoff goal of his career, the winner in Game 2, and had four more assists to give him eight in the postseason. The third and fourth lines also contributed; Brian Boyle had two goals, and Vladislav Namestnikov and Ryan Callahan each had a goal and an assist. Tampa Bay's depth at forward proved to be valuable; Erik Condra sustained an upper-body injury in the first period of Game 1, and J.T. Brown was unavailable the entire series because of an upper-body injury.

The health of Stamkos is a major storyline heading into this series. He has not played since March 31 and had surgery April 4 to treat a blot clot near his right collarbone.

Stamkos, who had 36 goals in 77 regular-season games, has been practicing with the Lightning in a no-contact jersey and said that he would be ready to play as soon as he is cleared by team doctors and taken off blood thinners.

DEFENSEMEN

Video: WSH@PIT: Daley flips a backhand under the crossbar

Penguins: Pittsburgh proved how deep it is on defense in a 3-2 win in Game 4 against Washington, when they had to play without Kris Letang (suspension) and Olli Maatta (injury). Letang played 34:02 in Game 1 and 35:22 in Game 2. Maatta was his defense partner until he was injured on Brooks Orpik's high hit early in Game 2 that drew a penalty for interference.

Trevor Daley picked up a lot of Letang's minutes, playing 28:41 and scoring a goal. Brian Dumoulin had two assists in 22:10 of ice time. Ben Lovejoy and Ian Cole had to face tougher matchups. Justin Schultz and Derrick Pouliot filled in admirably.

The Penguins had their top six defensemen in Game 6; Letang played with Dumoulin on the top pair, Maatta with Daley on the second pair, and Lovejoy with Cole on the third pair.

Dumoulin had a strong Game 6. He had an assist in 22:09 of ice time but also was solid in getting to pucks and making a strong first pass to start the rush out of the defensive zone.

The Penguins also have been getting offense from their blue line. Letang, Daley and Lovejoy each has a goal. Letang has eight points, Daley has six, and Dumoulin has four, all assists.

Video: NYI@TBL, Gm5: Hedman scores a pair in Game 5

Lightning: Tampa Bay was solid defensively in the second round, limiting New York to six goals in winning the final four games after allowing five in a Game 1 loss. Key was keeping center John Tavares off the score sheet in all four victories.

Victor Hedman had eight points (four goals, four assists) and played 27:58 per game in the second round. He helped to hold the Islanders' top line in check and took advantage of his opportunities on offense.

Jason Garrison, Andrej Sustr and Braydon Coburn each played well against New York. They had to pick up additional minutes in Games 2 and 3 when Matthew Carle was out with an undisclosed injury, and Garrison was the unlikely hero in Game 4, when he scored in overtime.

Anton Stralman appears close to returning from a left-leg fracture. He has been out since March 25.

GOALTENDERS

Video: WSH@PIT, Gm6: Murray stops Ovechkin's wrister

Penguins: Pittsburgh has ridden 21-year-old rookie goalie Matt Murray into the conference final. Murray is 7-2 with a 2.05 goals-against average and .935 save percentage since replacing Jeff Zatkoff as the starter in Game 3 of the first round against the New York Rangers.

Murray has remained the starter even with veteran goalie Marc-Andre Fleury healthy and ready to return. Fleury didn't dress for the last five games of the regular season and the first seven of the playoffs while recovering from a concussion. He has been Murray's backup since Game 3 against Washington.

Coach Mike Sullivan made the gutsy call to stick with Murray, and it paid off against Washington. However, Murray allowed six goals on 55 shots (.891 save percentage) in the final two games of the series, so now it's fair to wonder if Sullivan will stick with him or give Fleury the start in Game 1 against Tampa Bay.

Fleury has not played since March 31.

Video: NYI@TBL, Gm5: Bishop makes spectacular pad save

Lightning: Just as he did in the first round against Detroit, Bishop closed the series with a shutout in Game 5 of the second round to eliminate New York.

Bishop had a rough start to the series, getting pulled in the second period of Game 1 after giving up four goals, but his struggles didn't last long. He had a .948 save percentage in the final four games of the series.

"[Bishop] has played his 'A' game all year," Callahan said. "And it seems like the bigger the game, the better he is back there."

COACHES

Penguins: Upon taking over after Mike Johnston was fired Dec. 12, Sullivan came in with a plan to make Pittsburgh faster and more resilient. The Penguins are in the conference final in large part because of their improvement in those areas.

Sullivan's ability to get the best out of the Penguins goes back to his days coaching against them as an assistant with the Rangers from 2009-14. He saw then how easy it was to irritate players such as Crosby, Malkin and Letang, and that's why he stressed the importance of becoming mentally tougher.

Sullivan also deserves credit for finding line combinations that work and sticking with them. Instead of trying to force Kessel to play with Malkin or Crosby, Sullivan put him with Bonino, and Kessel has thrived ever since. Sheary has been a good fit with Crosby and Hornqvist. Sullivan has given responsibility to the fourth line, featuring Cullen, Kuhnhackl and Bryan Rust, and it's been productive.

Lightning: Cooper's call to switch up his top two lines at times in the second round paid off. Now, he may have to make the difficult decision of where to insert Stamkos into that mix.

Though he certainly will welcome the opportunity to add a player who scored 79 goals the past two seasons, Cooper has to make sure that the Lightning's chemistry isn't disrupted.

Condra and Brown each might also return in the series.

Associate coach Rick Bowness, who is in charge of the defense, may have to move players around if Stralman returns. Will he play Hedman and Stralman together, or will he continue to show faith in Carle, who performed well paired with Hedman in the first two rounds?

SPECIAL TEAMS

Penguins: Just as Pittsburgh got its power play going against Washington, its penalty kill started to bend. The Penguins were 0-for-14 on the power play but 11-for-12 on the PK in the first four games; they were 3-for-8 on the power play but 4-for-8 on the PK in Games 5 and 6.

The Lightning have one of the top penalty kills in the League, but they allowed four power-play goals in their five-game series against the Islanders, so the Penguins might be able to keep their power play humming. Though the Penguins penalty kill appeared to get exposed in the final two games against the Capitals, the Lightning don't have the same type of weapons on their power play as Washington, unless Stamkos is able to play.

Lightning: The Tampa Bay penalty kill was not as good in the second round against New York (14-for-18) as it was in the first round against Detroit (24-for-25), but it's been the best of the teams remaining in the postseason (88.4 percent).

The power play went 3-for-20 against the Islanders and is 7-for-43 in the playoffs. If the Lightning get Stamkos or Stralman back, or both, it should provide a big boost for the unit.

SERIES CHANGERS

Video: WSH@PIT, Gm6: Hagelin deflects PPG past Holtby

Penguins: Carl Hagelin, forward -- Hagelin's speed has allowed him to make a big impact in the playoffs. He has eight points (four goals, four assists). Lovejoy said Hagelin is a horror to play against from a defenseman's perspective because of how quickly he can put you on your heels, especially if you take a bad angle at him. His speed drives how fast his line plays, and his line has been the Penguins' best. Hagelin will put pressure on Tampa Bay's defensemen. As much as the Lightning have to be worried about Crosby, Malkin and Kessel, a player like Hagelin can burn them. Just ask the Capitals and Rangers.

Video: NYI@TBL, Gm2: Drouin slips one five-hole by Greiss

Lightning: Jonathon Drouin, forward -- The confidence continues to grow for Drouin with every shift the No. 3 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft takes in these playoffs. Drouin has eight assists in the first two rounds and scored the winning goal in Game 2. If Stamkos is able to return, expect Drouin to be on his line; the Lightning would want Drouin's playmaking to complement Stamkos' goal-scoring ability. In a series that could be decided by special teams, five of Drouin's eight assists have come on the power play.

WILL WIN IF …

Penguins: They roll their four lines and control the pace; that won't be easy because the Lightning play a fast game too. However, if the top scorers neutralize each other, the Penguins have a better chance to win because they have better depth.

Lightning: Bishop and the defense continue to perform at a high level. The Penguins have a ton of skill and are going to test the Lightning early by trying to send a lot of pucks at Bishop. Tampa Bay has scored 30 goals in 10 playoff games, and should be able to continue at that pace, but they can't get into high-scoring games with Pittsburgh.

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